Sunday, November 22, 2009

Final Reactions: The 126th Game

If you're only going to show up for one quarter, make sure it's the fourth. That's the lesson I learned Saturday, although I suspect Yale head coach Tom Williams learned something else entirely. But more on that in a moment.

Harvard, through three quarters, simply did not belong on the same field as the Yale Bulldogs. Their defense had no answer for sophomore running back Alex Thomas, Patrick Witt moved the ball against the vaunted Crimson secondary with surprising efficiency, and the Harvard offense could not punch the ball into the end zone from the one yard line for the second straight week.

I've never liked invoking psychological factors when discussing teams, because I think it tends to be a purely backwards-looking argument - when teams play poorly, they have bad chemistry and aren't clutch, but when they play well, they've found a groove and are playing within themselves, or some other meaningless babble. That said, it was hard to look at this Crimson team through the first three quarters and not think last week's Penn game had deflated them. I certainly said as much on the air, albeit with some heavy caveats.

What's much more likely, of course, is that Harvard was still trying to work through some very tangible weakness, in particular the depletion of its defensive line. Captain Carl Ehrlich was the only member of the defensive line who was tabbed to start in the preseason who played in Saturday's game, with Ryan Burkhead, Ben Graeff, and Chuks Obi all out for the year with injuries. Victor Ojukwu, John Lyon, Grant Sickle (who was himself injured in the third quarter), and Sumner Webster have had productive moments at points this season, but they were clearly overmatched against Alex Thomas for much of the Game. Their inability to blitz through the weak Yale offensive line and get to Patrick Witt allowed him to minimize the killer mistakes he's been known for this season, and helped Yale build the 10-0 lead they took into the fourth quarter.

And then it all came apart for the Bulldogs. With so much on the line - a chance to grab only their second win in The Game in nine years, to avoid a losing season, to deny Tim Murphy a seven-win season for the first time since 2000, to give rookie coach Tom Williams a signature win in his first season with the Bulldogs - Yale staged a meltdown of epic proportions. Let's talk about the seven plays that made the comeback possible.

1. Yale 1st and 10 on their own 46, 11:17 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-0

After a disastrous, fumble-laden three and out for the still moribund Crimson offense, the Bulldogs took over looking to kill the clock and deliver a finishing blow to a reeling Harvard team. Punter Thomas Hull didn't have a particularly strong outing, and the Yale offense was set up with excellent field position. Looking to pass on first down, Patrick Witt dropped back in search of an open receiver, something he had had little trouble finding all game. But on this occasion, the coverage tightened up just enough to give Nick Hasselberg time to cut through the offensive line and get to Patrick Witt. The sack pushed Yale all the way back to 2nd and 20, and a subsequent false start made picking up the first down all but impossible. This gave Harvard the ball back with time enough left to score twice.

2. Harvard 4th and 4 on their own 30, around 7:30 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-0

I've already dubbed one Crimson play The Heave, so why not The Spin? With their season on the line and facing fourth and medium, the Crimson elected to hand the ball to arguably their best offensive player - Gino Gordon. Running out to the left side, Gordon made it about three yards before he was swarmed by Bulldog defenders. In one of the most remarkable second efforts I've ever seen, Gordon found a way to spin out of the multitude of tackles and break free for another 16 yards, netting Harvard 19 yards and the biggest first down of the season. Of all the things I've gotten to witness in my three years in the WHRB football booth, the development of Gino Gordon might well be the most impressive. I remember him as a freshman, when he couldn't gain more than a yard a carry and looked lost out there. Yeah...that was a long time ago.

3. Harvard 1st and 10 on the Yale 41, around 7:00 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-0

Matt Luft has had a frustrating senior campaign with the Crimson. After three seasons of playing with Liam O'Hagen and Chris Pizzotti as his quarterback, the shift to Collier Winters has seen his production dramatically drop. I probably shouldn't so strongly imply causation there - after all, Matt Luft is pretty much always double-teamed, making him an unwise target for even the most adept of passers - but there are a number of reasons to think Winters and Luft have not been able to forge the same chemistry Winters has with Chris Lorditch or Luft had with Pizzotti. Part of it is that Winters just doesn't have the consistent, accurate deep ball necessary to give Luft time to separate himself from the coverage downfield. Another factor is that Winters rarely, if ever, practiced with Luft before this season. But on this play, none of it mattered, as Winters found Luft deep for a touchdown. For an offense that hadn't shown too many signs of life since the first quarter against Columbia two weeks ago, that's a pretty good way to get revitalized. And for Luft, I've got to think that was about a perfect way as any to wrap up what has been a brilliant career here with the Crimson.

4. Yale 1st and 10 on their own 37, around 4:30 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-7

This play is probably going to get forgotten when people talk about this game in future years. Yale was looking to run out the clock, and some questionable clock management decisions by Harvard had left the Crimson with only one timeout. As such, one or two more first downs would likely seal the game for the Bulldogs, and this play seemed to move things in the right direction for Yale, as Alex Thomas broke an eleven yard run right up the middle. It was a devastating play all around - Harvard looked to be incapable of stopping the run or the clock, and that grim reality seemed to doom the Crimson's hopes of a comeback. But then, a flag was thrown, holding was called, and Yale suddenly found itself facing 1st and 20. It'll probably not be too well remembered, but that hold probably saved Harvard's season. Which brings us to...

5. Yale 4th and 22 on their own 25, around 2:30 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-7

I said this on-air, but I just can't resist repeating this line: in a shocking, last minute upset, Yale coach Tom Williams unseated Bill Belichick for the most insane fourth down gamble made by a New England coach this week. (Not that Belichick's decision actually was all that unreasonable, but a good line is a good line.) The crazy thing is that the fake punt was actually a pretty decent play, as safety John Powers gained a good fifteen yards before being brought down. Of coruse, when it's 4th and 22, fifteen yards doesn't really count for all that much.

Again, I hate invoking psychology here, but I wonder whether Williams was looking to make an audacious call in his first Game. Maybe. I certainly buy that about as much as I buy his claims that Harvard's offense had "momentum." It's not like Harvard had just scored three unanswered touchdowns or anything. They had only put one touchdown on the board, and based on the last seven quarters of Crimson play there was no reason to think a second touchdown was automatic. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective has valiantly tried to analyze Williams's decision, but I have a hard time thinking there's any statistical justification for going for it on 4th and 22 from your own 27 while still in possession of the lead, particularly when your punter, Tom Mante, seemingly has an NFL-quality leg. I'm no big fan of punting as a general rule, but that was pretty much precisely the right time to kick it away and assume Yale's decent defense could stop the inconsistent Harvard offense from moving it 80+ yards in less than ninety seconds, particularly when they were without timeouts. Coach Williams has a lot of work to do in New Haven before his gamble is forgotten. Four or five Ivy titles ought to do it.

6. Harvard 3rd and 2 on the Yale 32, around 1:30 left in The Game, Yale leads 10-7

While the Winters-to-Luft connection has been largely missing this season, the Winters-to-Lorditch connection has been one of the most consistently dangerous parts of the Crimson attack. The decision to air it out deep on 3rd and 2 was a gutsy call - the team was barely in field goal range, particularly if Winters was sacked on the play. It wasn't the best catch Lorditch has made in his career - that honor would have to go to his 77-yard touchdown reception against Princeton - but it was easily the most dramatic. He actually pulled his hamstring on the catch, and we wish him all the best in his recovery heading into next year. Clearly, the Crimson are going to need him.

7. Yale 1st and 10 on their own 49, around 0:50 left in The Game, Harvard leads 14-10

Driving once again, Yale looked to be in decent shape to drive down the field and get in position to score. Harvard's prevent defense had bottled up the deep threats while leaving the Bulldog tight ends open for quick ten yard gains. With all three timeouts left, Yale looked to have an approach that might just allow them to grab back the victory. But then, in a display of inaccuracy that has become all too common for the Eli faithful this year, Patrick Witt threw a pass right at a wide open Jon Takamura - which would be great if Takamura wasn't a Crimson linebacker. Although Yale would get the ball back on their four yard line with a few seconds left, this interception sealed Yale's fate.

For the pregame, we put together a feature detailing the five most dramatic Harvard victories in the history of The Game. It looks like we'll have to update it once again. I'll have a season wrap-up post tomorrow, but for now I'd just like to leave you with one final thought. With apologies to the Bulldog faithful, I'd like to paraphrase a cheer I heard resound through the Yale Bowl on Saturday:

Harvard Yale's team may fight to the end, but Yale Harvard will win.

Yep. For the last decade, that just about says it all when it comes to The Game.

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